Essays and Criticism
As most critics recognize, Catch-22 offers more than a critique of World War II despite its focus on the destructiveness of warfare. Instead Joseph Heller employs this setting to comment upon the condition of midcentury American life. His satire targets not just the military but all regimental institutions that treat individuals as cogs in a machine. His central character, Yossarian, recognizes the insanity of social institutions that devalue human life and tries to rebel against them, first in minor ways and finally through outright rejection of them. Yet Yossarian is not, as some have contended, an immoral or nonidealistic man. He is a man who responds to human suffering, unlike characters such as Colonel Cathcart and Milo Minderbinder, who ignore the human consequences of their actions. Yossarian's perceptions conflict with most everyone else's in the book. Thus, his encounters with people inevitably lead to mutual misunderstandings, to Yossarian labelling everyone else crazy, and to a sense of pervasive lunacy. This lack of rationality creates wild comedy in the novel, but, ultimately, it drives the book toward tragedy.
Yossarian sees the conflicts of the war in purely personal terms. To him, his enemies, which include his superior officers, are trying to murder him. Those who believe in the war cannot comprehend his reduction of...
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Dramatic Tension in Catch-22
A book that was widely acclaimed a classic upon its appearance and that has suffered no loss of critical esteem deserves many critical examinations. Now, more than ten years after its first publication in 1961, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 may justify another attempt to fix certain qualities in it more precisely than has yet been done. My special concern here is the pattern of dramatic tension between the preposterous events of the story and the built-in dimension of laughter. It is part of the pattern that the laughter, intermittent and trailing away just before the end, contributes to a catharsis in which the grimness of war provides the dominant memory.
It is part of the book's greatness that its hilarious force comes so near to a standoff with the grimness. Heller has achieved his declared purpose, mentioned elsewhere, not to use humor as a goal, but as a means to an end. "The ultimate effect is not frivolity but bitter pessimism," he said (Time, Mar. 4, 1966). And yet the alternating play of humor and horror creates a dramatic tension throughout that allows the book to be labeled as a classic both of humor and of war. It is not "a comic war novel" despite the fact that comedy and war are held more or less in solution, for the war is not comic but horrible—this we are not allowed to forget. The laughter repeatedly breaks through the tight net of frustration in which the characters struggle only to sink back as the net repairs itself and...
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He Took Off: Yossarian and the Different Drummer
Yossarian of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has been called a coward, an amoralist, a cop-out, a traitor. Others see him as a casualty, an individualist, a prophet of love, the last soul true to himself. The first readers object primarily because he "takes off," claiming this is artistically, patriotically, or morally no way to end the book.
Yet Yossarian gives up safety, rewards, and a hero's homecoming when he flees. He is in fact following an American tradition—escaping, or trying to escape, in order to save himself from absurdity, compromise, or despair. In what Hemingway called the source of modern American literature, Huckleberry Finn, Twain's puckish hero (after surviving a river's length of encounters with man's hideous inhumanity to man) also "lights out" for the Indian Territory. The similarity is striking when we realize that Yossarian leaves rather than be comfortably tamed and returned as a hero to the civilized States (for the glory of Colonels Cathcart and Korn) and that Huck leaves to avoid the comfortable (but to him confining and compromising) civilized family life.
There is in American fiction a tradition of heroes who "take off," or who renounce ease, or who deny themselves pleasure in quest of individual rather than conventional fulfillment. This radical individualism—absurd, perhaps, or ascetic—shows Yossarian at the end of the story to be not a cop-out, but one of many rebels in a tradition of rebels....
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